What Makes Bill Buckley Run

Rebuffed by the voters in New York City’s 1966 mayoralty campaign, the author persists, and this month offers himself to Yale alumni as a candidate for election to the Yale Corporation, in which post he hopes to influence the education of future Elis, and transform, in whatever way possible, the course of instruction in America’s private colleges. Mr. Buckley, once chairman of the YALE DAILY NEWS,stirred up the Ivy League in 1951 with his book GOD AND MAN AT YALE,an eloquent objection to nonsecular education at his alma mater. He is an editor,columnist, and television personality widely associated with conservative causes.

Q. Mr. Buckley, last October you suddenly announced your candidacy for membership in the Yale Corporation, and the story broke into the front page of the New York Times. Tell us, please, why you decided to run.

A. In fact, the idea wasn’t my own, but that of a good friend who is also my lawyer and National Review’s. He is an alumnus of Yale of great distinction, Mr. C. Dickerman Williams, B.A. 1922, LL.B. 1924, former editor of the Yale Law Journal, who clerked under Chief Justice William Howard Taft. I mentioned that once to Groucho Marx, in some connection or other, and he was greatly impressed. Overimpressed. It turned out he was under the impression that Mr. Williams had been President Taft’s Attorney General.

Q. What was it that your genius lawyer-friend said to you that prompted you to run?

A. What shook me up was Mr. Williams’ extraordinary contention that I might just possibly win election to the Yale Corporation. He reasons that many alumni are dissatisfied with various policies at Yale, and that although many of them do not agree with all of my own positions, they do agree that such positions as I tend to take are not vigorously enough defended within the Yale Corporation.

Q. Do you mean to say that some, or even many, alumni will be voting for you who wouldn’t be doing so if they thought that your views would prevail?

A. Alas, yes.

Q. Isn’t that a little unreasonable?

A. No. It is reasonable to desire that someone within the council of the mighty should put forward the merits of a conservative case, even without committing oneself finally to the merits of that case. A conservative becomes a presence in the room. This doesn’t mean that he overwhelms the majority, but it does mean that the majority have a better opportunity to test their own views. You might even go so far as to say that minority representation is an aspect of academic freedom.

Q. Are you suggesting that if you were elected, yours would be the only conservative voice in the Yale Corporation?

A. No. There are undoubtedly other conservatives among the eighteen regular members of the Yale Corporation. But there isn’t anyone else who is identified as a sort of public defender of conservative points of view.

Q. Won’t it be rather a bore for the Corporation to have you there at every meeting, nagging, and tattling, and filibustering?

A. I shouldn’t think they would find me any more boring than I would find them. Actually, I have every reason to believe that they are very nice people, and therefore that I would find myself among people like myself. As for nagging, I don’t believe in it, am temperamentally incapable of it. Tattling? I would of course respect the privacy of that organization, even as I have respected the privacy of others I have belonged to. However, I would not go so far as to deprive myself of the freedom I now have to criticize Yale policies as they are publicly discernible. As for filibustering, I assume that the bylaws of the Corporation provide for limiting the time given over to discussion of pending proposals. If there is no such bylaw, I shall propose one.

Q. Has there been public discussion of your candidacy?

A. Most of it has been conversational. Newspapers throughout the country remarked my candidacy, some of them even commented editorially on it, but Yale has been publicly silent, at least so far. The Yale Alumni Magazine, for instance, has, as of the moment I write, exhibited a most exemplary sangfroid. Not a mention of my candidacy, even in issues which report the social and political doings of the university’s white mice. I am very grateful.

Q. You mean there has been no public discussion at Yale of your candidacy?

A. No, I don’t mean that. Within a fortnight of my announcement, the student body canvassed its members in two different polls. The first was an open discussion before the Yale Political Union, at which a dozen student speakers arose, some of them to espouse, others to denounce, my candidacy. At the end of the speeches the Union voted in favor of electing me. I attach no significance whatever to this, though it is of course interesting to me that a favorable vote should have followed upon a public debate over my candidacy. I like that.

Q. How could the students have known what your views are?

A. Some of them know my views from my writings. One or two of them called me on the telephone while preparing for the debate and elicited answers to several supersensitive questions.

Q. And the other student canvass?

A. Went against me. That was a poll of the entire student body, conducted by the Yale Political Union. Against me were 52 percent of those polled. For me, 36 percent. Don’t know, 12 percent.

Q. What was your reaction to that vote?

A. Magnificently political. An editor of the Yale Daily News telephoned me before the afternoon of the day the results would be tabulated to ask whether I could be reached for comment at 10 o’clock that night, at which point it would be known whether I had won or lost. I replied that unfortunately I could not be reached at 10 P.M. that particular night, but that — such is my recent education in politics — 1 was even now prepared to give two statements, one of them suitable for the contingency of my winning, the other suitable if I lost. If the students voted for me, I should be quoted as saying that I had anticipated their cri de coeur and was coming fast to the rescue. If the vote was against me, I should be quoted as observing that here was proof of (a) how greatly the students needed my guidance, and (b) how wise Yale’s policy is that students are not permitted to vote for Corporation members, not even alumni, until they have been out of college for five years; the presumption being that after five years they will grow wiser. Wise enough to vote for me.

Q. Why, would you say, did the majority of the student body vote against you?

A. In part because it’s fashionable to vote against a conservative (ask Goldwater). In part because the publicity given to my candidacy focused on my views of Yale’s admissions policy. These views were strenuously misrepresented in the New York Times, enough to convince the Yale student who is a graduate of a public high school that were my views to prevail, a graduate of a public high school stands little chance of getting into Yale. The Times quoted me as saying: “The son of an alumnus, who goes to a private preparatory school, now has less of a chance of getting in than some boy from P.S. 109 somewhere. There should be a presumption in favor of those who are supporting the University—the alumni.”

Q. How does that misrepresent your position?

A. Triumphantly. A few days before announcing my candidacy, I had published a column insisting that the distinction ought to be plain that a positive bias in favor of sons of Yale alumni is not the same thing as a positive bias against graduates of the public schools. My position has been that all other qualifications being equal, the son of the Yale alumnus should have preference over the son of a nonalumnus, no matter what school the respective candidates have been attending. In other words, the son of a Yale alumnus who graduates from P.S. 109 should receive favorable consideration over the son of a nonalumnus who graduates from Groton, assuming that the two boys are otherwise equally qualified, by which I mean that the two boys achieved roughly equal scores on the college board tests, got comparably enthusiastic recommendations from the headmaster and principal, showed equal zeal for extra-academic pursuits, et cetera.

Q. But, in fact, you must acknowledge the likelihood that in such a case as you mention, it would be the Grotonian who is typically the son of the Yale alumnus rather than the boy from P.S. 109?

A. Yes, I do, but you mustn’t jump to conclusions which would betray an inverse snobbism. I believe that there shouldn’t be a positive bias against any boy merely because his father sends him to Groton. Yet I do believe that something of the sort has got itself spliced into the thinking of some of those who have fashioned Yale’s admissions policies. I grant that my conclusions are impressionistic, but to the extent that it is feasible to substantiate them, let me cite two incidents and some statistics.

1. The headmaster of a prominent Eastern preparatory school told me a year ago, in commenting on Yale’s admissions policy, that if he were approached by a superbly qualified student who above all earthly things desired to go on to Yale, the headmaster would counsel him to withdraw from his school and enroll in a public school, whence he could more safely count on attracting die favorable attention of Yale’s gathering system.

2. The headmaster of another famous private school reported to class agents his concern over Yale’s positive bias against graduates of the preparatory schools and sons of alumni, but on being asked to make public his criticisms, was manifestly afraid to do so — one must assume for fear of incurring the retaliatory displeasure of Yale’s admissions office.

3. The figures. In the Class of 1940 the percentage of the entering class at Yale whose fathers were alumni was 29. In the Class of 1950, the percentage was 24. In 1960, 22 percent; in 1966, 20 percent; in 1969, 18 percent; in 1971, 14 percent. Now, there are two explanations for the diminishing percentage of Yale undergraduates whose fathers were Yale alumni. One — and it raises an interesting, intellectual question — is that the academic standards for admission to Yale have been rising at a rate beyond the capacity of the typical son of the typical Yale graduate to keep up with, in which case it is time to ask how come the sons of Yale are failing their sons? The other explanation is that sons of Yale alumni are being discriminated against for social reasons, giving rise to the equally interesting question, namely, why does Yale disdain the sons of men who were taught the social values of Yale University?

Q. What do you consider the desirable standard for admission to Yale?

A. The desirable standard is the standard that was explicitly adopted by Princeton University after the Second World War, or at least, specifically acknowledged at that time; a standard from which, by the way, Princeton now appears to have retreated, under the pressures of atmospheric egalitarianism. What a spokesman for Princeton said as recently as 1958 was very simply this: We reserve the right to set academic standards for the freshman class as high as we like. However, having set them at the level we desire to set them, we shall admit into the freshman class the son of any alumnus of Princeton whose academic record and achievement tests indicate that he would graduate with his class, provided he is also qualified on the basis of the normal extra-academic considerations.

Q. Isn’t it so that such policies would tend to make the great private universities sort of endogamous, class-conscious havens for the privileged?

A. Yes and no. Yes to that much of what you allege which is desirable and also by the way realistic; no to that much which is undesirable and unrealistic. Neither Yale nor Princeton nor Harvard nor Stanford — nor any university, no matter how fecund its graduates — can procreate, one wife at a time, fast enough to make for freshman classes composed entirely of alumni sons, so that there is bound to be a biological watering of the freshman class with sons of fathers who were not alumni. When Princeton was meticulously observing the policy of granting preference to Princeton sons provided-they-could-graduate-with-their-class, only about 20 percent of Princeton’s entering class were Princeton sons.

I deduce from the figures of the admissions committee that if every alumni son who applied for admission to the Gcass of 1970 had been admitted, even then the freshman class would have been only 55 percent sons-of-alumni. Suppose that had happened? One has only to imagine the high esteem of the first-rank university whose pedagogy proved so durable and so animating that the majority of the sons of its graduates succeeded in establishing their competitive parity with the very best sons of the very best parents from all quarters of American society.

In other words, the fear that a private university that favors the sons of its alumni will become incestuous and fetid breaks down under scrutiny. It need only be added that such is the diversity even among Yale graduates that if one assumed that the first-born of each one of them had a preemptive right to admission — which is a travesty on what I am recommending — it would not necessarily follow that the cultural or educational effect upon the university would be suffocating. There are as many differences among sons of Yale alumni — cultural, biological, glandular, intellectual — as there are among the sons, if not of any random sample group of American citizens, at least among a random sample group of such parents as in fact constitute the parents of existing freshman classes.

Q. You have elaborated what you consider to be the desirable admissions policy. Suppose you answer the question: why should a college favor the sons of its alumni? For purely mercenary reasons?

A. No, not for purely mercenary reasons, though “purely mercenary reasons” can be transmuted by the lightest rhetorical legerdemain into “purely altruistic reasons.” There are several reasons. Probably the easiest to dispose of is also the most vulgar — which is also the most frequently raised — to wit, your leering question about the mercenary consideration.

Permit me to answer it by asking you a question. Why should an alumnus contribute to his alma mater? I recognize one answer to that as pretty convincing: every graduate of every college that paid out more toward his education than the graduate paid in tuition fees ought to feel psychologically indebted at least for the difference. Suppose that it cost Yale $12,000 to cope with me, and that as an undergraduate I paid Yale $6000. There is a debt of honor there, by my figuring, of $6000. Not, to be sure, a debt to which anyone can lay formal claim. But a debt of considerable moral cogency.

All right. Now, to whom is this debt payable? The automatic answer — to your alma mater is, upon reflection, unconvincing. At least, it is unconvincing under the existing philanthropical rubric, which is that your subsidy is utterly unrelated to your being a member, so to speak, of the Yale (read Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, what-have-you) family. If your education by Yale was a benefaction which records nothing more than Yale’s generic interest in higher education, then the debt that you incurred is repayable to the Cause of Higher Education wherever you spot that cause as marginally most efficient. Indeed, if we measure our debt to our alma mater in the coin of a reciprocated devotion to the cause of education, then we quite reasonably observe the criteria of our own university in distributing our largesse: don’t give to the privileged few, give to others. Don’t give to Yale, give to Tuskegee. Now, I know very well the case for multiplying the advantages of the few. But the acceptance of the case for the few requires corollary suppositions which existing admissions standards are reluctant to acknowledge, suppositions the disavowal of which requires the conscientious alumnus to ask: Why, then, give money to Yale, at a time when the College of the Ozarks is also wanting? Yale has got itself a gymnasium the yearly maintenance cost of which is more than the Ozarks pays all its liberal arts faculty. Doesn’t it then follow that an appeal by Yale for funds, to the extent that it is based on reminding us that we were the beneficiaries of higher education, is an appeal which we can most plausibly respond to — in the context of its existing admissions policy — by addressing our contributions to the College of the Ozarks?

Q. Are you suggesting that contributions to your alma mater should be based on self-interest?

A. You have a faculty for vulgarizing. I am leading up to the point that self-interest isn’t necessarily antisocial, no more in education than in commerce. If “good reasons are “social reasons, then I say flatly: there are no “social” reasons for giving money to any one top-flight private university. The best reasons for giving support to a university are “selfish”: such reasons as that you desire a particular university to maintain the highest standards because (a) it is a university which is committed to taking on your son assuming he qualifies to study in that community, and/or — brace yourself—(b) that university fulfills a particular function, the fulfilling of which endows the nation in which you live with citizens whose attitudes toward their country are such as indirectly to endow that country, and hence you and your progeny, with the benefit of their education and dedication.

Q. Do you then conceive of Yale and other front-rank private universities as educational watering places for a governing class?

A. I am of course aware that you are not permitted to use the phrase “governing class” in America. What makes the term invidious is its association with the class system, or even the caste system, in such societies as England’s or India’s. Curiously, there is no opprobrium attached in America to the concept of individual families being associated over the course of generations with public service, loosely viewed. We are proud of the Adams family, of the Lodges, of the Rockefellers, of the Roosevelts. We should also be proud of institutions an exposure to which sets the mind to thinking in terms of a general sense of obligation to society. Instead, we denounce them as havens for the privileged, summon the spirit of Andy Jackson, and reach for our democratic leveling guns.

There are those who so overstate the imperatives of the democratic tradition that they find themselves, in effect, hard at work attempting to fracture the elite. That spirit is of course codified in the progressive income tax that rises, or did until recently, to levels of 91 percent. It is a robust and thoroughly commendable American tradition that there should be instant access to the top for everyone who qualifies, and that there should be ample opportunities to qualify. But recent admissions policies of the large private colleges seem to argue that it is equally important to fracture coalescing classes of governors. The effect of such policies is in part to absorb new members into the governing class, in part to demote others even if they have done nothing to earn that demotion. “You will laugh,” I wrote a while ago, and some people did laugh, “but it is true that a Mexican-American from El Paso High with identical scores on the achievement tests, and identically ardent recommendations from their headmasters, has a better chance of being admitted to Yale than Jonathan Edwards the Sixteenth from St. Paul’s School.”

Any college that wishes to serve within the American tradition should guard against exclusivity for the sake of it. It should never exclude the talented in order to give preferences to its own grossly untalented. But it should not decline to include its own simply in order to multiply opportunity. We should bear in mind that there must emerge a reason for the private college if the private college is going to survive. If Yale has no sense of obligation to its alumni, no sense of adherence to any special traditions, why should it be private? I have no doubt that the state of Connecticut would gratefully accept the gift of the plant, facilities, and faculty contracts of Yale University, which gift would (a) provide the final solution to the problem of financing Yale, and (b) forever allay any suspicion that Yale is undemocratic.

Q. Are you then predicting that the private colleges will disappear—or that they will adopt your approach?

A. The private colleges, as nobody tires of saying, are in crisis. They need more money. Paradoxically, the crisis appears to deepen even as the people become more affluent.

A decade ago, the emphasis had already begun to move from support by individuals to support by corporations. There had been an important test case in 1951 when a stockholder objected to the A. P. Smith’s Company giving money to Princeton. The judge ended up authorizing the philanthropy, although on grounds most embarrassing to university officials. The gift was legal, said the judge, because “Princeton emphasizes by precept and indoctrination the principles which are vital to the preservation of our own democratic system of business and government.” It being a clear violation of currently understood standards of academic freedom for a college to emphasize anything by precept or indoctrination, the language of the decision was avoided like a litany from a Black Mass. Even so, the universities interpreted the decision as carte blanche for corporations to give large sums of money to colleges and universities. Accordingly, in the spring of 1956, the presidents of the large private colleges issued a set of “Guiding Principles for Industrial Gifts.” The preamble to the “Guiding Principles” began by remarking such things as “colleges and universities have a deep obligation to society,” and then hurried on to discuss “the form of corporate giving most useful to the college or university [cash].” Delicately, the presidents warned colleges and universities against permitting “their names to be used in any related advertising” of their corporation donors, but hastened to grant that corporations obviously deserve the good will that is the natural and appropriate dividend of genuine philanthropy. (The distinction for which they were groping is not altogether clear. Presumably, it is all right to establish a Colgate Chair of Political Economy, but not a Colgate “It Cleans Your Breath While It Cleans Your Teeth” Chair of anything at all.) Accordingly, such things as the plain and simple Socony Mobil Professorship of Nuclear Engineering (Princeton) started to crop up.

But we see now, ten years later, that the corporations couldn’t, or at any rate didn’t, give enough. So that McGeorge Bundy, who was educated at Yale when Charles Seymour was its president — a gentleman of progressive inclination and humane disposition who warned repeatedly against incurring any dependency on the federal government — now calls for “a drastic increase in government support.” Yale has not, then, ceased to have wants. But is she no longer worthy of her past history? Or of the sometime devotion of her alumni? Why?

Q. Well, why? Purely because of this positive bias you speak of against sons of alumni?

A. I think it goes beyond that. There is the sense of mission, clumsily formulated by the judge in the A. P. Smith case who, unwittingly and in a single sentence, challenged root and branch the central presumptions, not to say vanities, of that special kind of academic freedom which is nihilistic in its implications. The conventional argument against Yale, made by its critics, myself included, has been along conservative-liberal lines — the charge, for instance, that not only is Yale in practice distinctly and observably hostile to one point of view (the conservative point of view), and therefore living outside the bounds of true impartiality, but that such partiality as Yale does exercise is intellectually and politically faddish, and very dimly related to the higher ambitions of a great university.

Q. Do you have in mind, specifically, the activities of such conspicuous Yalemen as Staughton Lynd and William Sloane Collin, Jr.?

A. Former Yaleman Staughton Lynd (Yale is not powerless suavely to excommunicate, when the will is finally mustered). Concerning Dr. Coffin, it is true that he is conspicuous, and that although he has a great deal of support among the students and faculty of Yale (which support is of his political opinions and activities, one has to acknowledge, rather than of the Christian fires that rage within his breast), he is not an official spokesman for Yale. But the argument that Dr. Coffin’s activities are not to be confused with the mind-set of Yale University is not altogether convincing. It was only a very few years ago that official Yale conferred a doctor of laws on Martin Luther King, who more clearly qualifies as a doctor of lawbreaking. It seems to me that even if you accept totally unexamined the most fanatical statements on academic freedom, for instance those in Professor Robert MacIver’s book, then you definitely need, for the sake of balance, for the sake of intellectual excitement, for the sake of its survival as a private university, a conservative revival at Yale.

Q. What are you doing to try to encourage such a revival?

A. Running for the Corporation.